Thursday, December 31, 2015

readin’, writin’, ‘rithmetic….a little history

American schools have been around since the Boston Latin School was opened in 1635.

Yet, what we think of today as public education, K-12, hasn’t been around all that long.

In 1644 the Dedham (MA) town meeting established the first tax-supported public school. Of course, it was for boys only. For long decades, girls might learn to read (so they could read the Bible, for instance), but it wasn’t thought important for them to be able to write or do their ciphers.

Rural Oklahoma, early 20th century
In New England, in the 18th century, “common schools” were established, mostly in the form of one-room schoolhouses for students, who often paid a fee to the teacher.

For most kids, the development of reading, writing and math skills was mostly a family concern until about the middle of the 19th century. By that time, public education and public high schools were becoming common, and attendance was in the process of being made mandatory.

What was taught in this evolution of schools was largely a local concern, often tied to the training and interests of the teacher.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that a nationwide standardized curriculum was established, mandating roughly the same array of classes that students are taking today: mathematics, English, science and history.

I guess you could say we’ve come a long way, baby….but I guess that Americans have never been less proud of our public education than we are today.

I wonder what an 18th century schoolmarm would have thought about the Common Core standards?

My guess is that she probably wasn’t giving passing grades to students who just weren’t getting it….that seems like the bottom line to me.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

First flight—unbelievable

For many people around the world, it was literally unbelievable.

On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright cranked up the biplane that he and his brother had built in the back room of their Ohio bike shop, and did what no man had done before: he traveled through the air, perched on a machine.

That first flight wasn’t much to write home about: 120 feet, lasting 12 seconds. Orville and Wilbur flew four times that day, and Wilbur handled the last, spectacular feat: he traveled 852 feet in 59 seconds.

A lot of folks thought it was impossible, or at least impossible for two Dayton bicycle mechanics to pull off.

The Wright brothers were deliberate in their strategies to develop and patent their airplane, so they didn’t talk it up much. The world-wide press was not largely impressed in the early years. Five years after the first flight, Orville and Wilbur went to France and did the first highly publicized demonstrations of their heavier-than-air craft. The world went nuts.

da Vinci's flying machine

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452-1519) had the idea for a flying machine back in the 16th century, but he couldn’t get the thing to work.

David McCullough's book on the Wright brothers

The other British colonies....

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

"We the People..." -- wait a minute

Our Constitution: the people did not speak

The U. S. Constitution is the primary legal and political document in our history, our heritage, our political organization and our culture.

It was written largely by wealthy white men (about two-thirds of them were lawyers), and about 4% of the population voted for the delegates who ratified it.

Vox populi had nothing to do with it, just saying.

“We the People…” is a bit of an exaggeration.

How we got the Constitution is not a well-known story.

I guess some folks may imagine that it was originally written on tablets by those mythical great men, The Founding Fathers.

To make a very long story short, the Constitution is a grotesquely politicized document that was conceived more or less on the sly by colonial delegates whose mandate merely was to fix up the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (ratified 1781).

The Articles of Confederation permitted little centralized power in the brand new republic, and they proved close to useless in the initial efforts to effectively govern the independent colonies, defend their sovereignty and manage their internal trade and civil affairs.

On February 21, 1787, the Congress convened state delegates in Philadelphia for the “sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation" and to “render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union."

Generally, the delegates were the same elite group of men—wealthy and politically connected—who dominated the state legislatures after the Revolutionary War.

They went hog wild and cooked up the Constitution with centralized “federal” powers that were feared by many political and commercial interests. They did back room bargaining and political horse trading in Philadelphia and among the states to ultimately engineer ratification of the Constitution by state legislatures or specially convened assemblies in 11 states in late 1788. North Carolina and Rhode Island finally joined the crowd in 1790.

By the way, there was no popular vote on the Constitution. In fact, only about 150,000 white men voted for the delegates to state conventions that ratified the document. In 1787, the total white population of the 13 former colonies was about 3,671,000.

First flight—unbelievable

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

“Music in my own house? Wow!”

OK, turn off the iPod and just listen to this for a minute.

1920s crystal radio

Scientific American went out on a limb 95 years ago and told its readers:
"It has been well known for some years that by placing a form of telephone transmitter in a concert hall or at any point where music is being played the sound may be carried over telephone wires to an ordinary telephone receiver at a distant point, but it is only recently that a method of transmitting music by radio has been found possible."

Crikey, mate. Music through the air!?

Soon after World War I ended, scientists in the United States, Britain and elsewhere were actively experimenting with ways to improve radio technology that would enable its practical transformation into a full-blown communications and entertainment medium.

1920s radio station
A laboratory of the National Bureau of Standards in Washington— it owned station WWV—relied on help from amateur radio operators to explore the technical details of radio transmissions. It had some successes as early as 1919.

Scientific American was ponderously enthusiastic:
"Music can be performed at any place, radiated into the air through an ordinary radio transmitting set and received at any other place, even though hundreds of miles away…the music received can be made as loud as desired by suitable operation of the receiving apparatus…The possibilities of such centralized radio concerts are great and extremely interesting."

Until the 1920s, the only way to hear live music was to go to the concert hall. The only way to hear whatever music you chose, any time you chose, was to own the record and a phonograph machine.

Let’s not even get started on television.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The yin and yang of productivity

Productivity is a late-blooming concept in human society.

Before the invention of at least conceptually accurate clocks (mid-13th century in Europe) and the subsequent advent of modern timekeeping, the notion of productivity in terms of work per unit of time was mostly unknown.

Medieval clock tower

David Landes, in Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World, points out that in the late medieval period, “the great virtue was busyness—unremitting diligence in one’s tasks.”
In today’s workplace, “keeping busy” is most definitely not the acceptable definition of doing good work and being productive. As anyone who’s read “Dilbert” recently knows, it’s possible to stay busy without actually doing anything.

When workers and bosses could accurately keep track of time, they created an inescapable transformation of workplace culture. If Hans made six shoes while Jakob made five shoes and Gretel (with six hungry kids) made four shoes, and Hans could do this repeatedly during measured time periods that everyone acknowledged, then it was obvious who was doing more work and thus who was more productive.

That is to say, it was obvious if each of them had the same training, and each of them had the same access to raw materials and similar tools, and each of them had the same working conditions, and if….

David Landes, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983), 25 and passim.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Evolution “deniers”

Charles Darwin went to his printer 156 years ago with the book that stood science, philosophy, religion and mankind on their collective heads.

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life  was a smash hit—in the bookshops, at least. The first press run of 1,250 copies sold out quickly, and the book went through six editions in 13 years.

A few years ago a first edition copy was sold by Christie’s for $194,500. Bibliophiles guess that perhaps 1,000 copies of the first edition are still tucked away in institutional and private libraries. Several of them are sold every year.

You probably know that, although the book enjoyed some degree of popularity among both scientists and late 19th century popular science readers, Darwin’s startling conclusion--that human beings evolved from ape-like ancestors--was wildly debated and disputed immediately after he published the book. The debate, dispute and denial continues today.

It seems to me that the “evolution deniers” got a 100-year head start on the today’s global climate change deniers.

For some folks, it is an apparently enduring capacity of human nature to ignore facts and scientifically rigorous thinking when some combination of ignorance, myth, belief, greed and fear makes it comfortable to do so.

Read here about the other evolution theorist, Alfred Russel Wallace

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Revolutionary War didn’t end at Yorktown

If you’re interested in early American history you probably recall that the British surrendered to George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.

Hold it. The Revolutionary War didn’t end there.

In the two years following Yorktown, there were hundreds of skirmishes and combat encounters, largely in the American South, between soldiers of the Continental and British armies, and among pro-American and pro-British militias and many native American warriors.

King George III didn’t get around to issuing his Proclamation of Cessation of Hostilities until February 3, 1783.

On the high seas, after Yorktown, there were continuing naval encounters involving privateers and both Continental Navy and Royal Navy vessels as late as March 1783.

George Washington enters New York City in November 1783

The war ended officially when the Treaty of Paris was finally signed in September 3, 1783.

News traveled slowly in those days. The last contingent of British troops in North America left New York City on November 26, 1783.

 Read about the last British soldiers leaving New York here on

Read this review of Don Glickstein’s book After Yorktown: The Final Struggle for American Independence:

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Keeping track of time

North American time zones were established 132 years ago by the big American and Canadian railroad companies that decided they could no longer keep track of the different local times observed in every town on their transcontinental routes.

The four time zones we have today—Eastern, Central, Mountain, Pacific—were created on November 18, 1883,with roughly their current boundaries by arbitrary action of the railroads. Almost immediately there was widespread adoption of the new time conventions.

Previously, almost every town in America followed the ancient custom of establishing 12:00 pm at the time that the sun was at its highest in the sky. The railroads had the incredibly confusing task of publishing train schedules that tried to keep track of every locally designated arrival and departure time on every route.

In the early stages of railroad travel the problem wasn’t really acute, because trains moved relatively slowly. As speeds increased, the number of towns on a typical day-trip route increased, thus greatly complicating the preparation and publication of train schedules, and frustrating the highly publicized efforts of railroads to “run on time.” Moreover, a traveler faced the unprecedented challenge of covering enough distance in a short time to make it obligatory to adjust his timepiece repeatedly.

The four time zones were universally recognized but they weren’t officially endorsed by the federal government until 1918, when Congress put the administration of time zones under the control of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Children at work

It’s tempting, sometimes, to think that life was simpler in the past, “in the good old days”….

In some ways, of course, it’s obviously true: in 1215 and in 1620 and in the late 18th century no one had to worry about keeping track of the recharging cords for the iPhone and the tablet and the Kindle and the laptop.

Mostly, though, simply, life was different in the past.

Prof. Patricia Crone makes this searingly obvious in her book, Pre-Industrial Societies. She writes broadly and with insight about the differences between our contemporary industrial society and all of the pre-industrial societies that nurtured and framed the lives of all the human beings who lived before the Industrial Revolution changed almost everything, barely more than 200 years ago.

For instance, childhood.

Crone says:
“…modern society is distinctive in its perception of children as creatures who must be shielded from adult secrets…on the grounds that they are innocent, and exempted from adult responsibilities (especially work) on the grounds that they are busy with their education…Childhood is perceived as a long and glorious holiday from adult society…

But in pre-industrial societies the infantile holiday was exceedingly short…Children learnt the ‘facts of life’ by watching and hearing just as they learnt anything else…Nor could they be exempted from adult responsibility for long. There was little, if any, formal schooling for the majority. Boys would usually start participating in adult work at about the age of seven, girls might begin to acquire domestic tasks even earlier.

Coal mine workers, Pittston, PA (Photo by Lewis Hine)
Adult status was conferred by physical maturity, real or presumed, at least as far as boys were concerned…Still, they might not be seen as fully adult in either law or custom until they had married (or reached an age where [sic] they ought to have done so); and marriage was usually indispensable for social recognition of adulthood in a girl, whatever her legal position.”

N. B. Britain passed the first child labor laws restricting work hours and working conditions for kids in the early 19th century. In 1836 Massachusetts enacted the first American child labor law, requiring that young workers under 15 must attend school for at least three months each year.
Patricia Crone, Pre-Industrial Societies (1989; repr., Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 110.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Book review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

Book review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Boston: Beacon Press, 2014

This is a book about the history of the United States, and the concurrent histories of the indigenous peoples who lived in North America before there was a “United States.” Surely you already know, deeply or vaguely, that these are violent histories of conflict, betrayal and subjugation.

Full disclosure: this is not an easy book. If you are an American historian or a student of American history, you should read it. Don’t expect to enjoy it. Dunbar-Ortiz frankly admits that she had “grave misgivings” about her mandate to “write accessibly so it would engage multiple audiences.”  She uses the word “genocide” a half dozen times in the first few pages, and repeatedly thereafter, and this sets a tone for the entire book.

Here are selected chapter sub-headings—they’re not a representative sample, but they are illustrative:
  • White Supremacy and Class
  • Roots of Genocide
  • Settler-Parasites Create the Virginia Colony
  • Career Building Through Genocide
  • The Genocidal Army of the West
  • Greed is Good
  • North America is a Crime Scene

Dunbar-Ortiz concludes by endorsing a Native American historian’s observation that “…while living persons are not responsible for what their ancestors did, they are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past.” The author argues for “honoring the treaties…restoring all sacred sites, starting with the Black Hills and including most federally held parks…[restoring] all stolen sacred items and body parts…payment of sufficient reparations for the reconstruction and expansion of Native nations.”

That is a conclusion of historic proportions that engages multiple audiences. Dunbar-Ortiz had grave misgivings before she wrote this book. I think many readers will feel the same.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Did the British really try to win?

I have a lot to learn. Therefore, with due humility, I ask: how hard did the British try to win the American Revolutionary War?

It's a research topic that intrigues me. I'm using the question to guide my reading. I'm careful to remind myself, often, that I don't know the answer. 

I think I know enough to indicate the validity of the question. Britain had substantial economic engagement with the North American colonies in the latter part of the 18th century. The British West Indies—the Caribbean "sugar islands"—also were an important component of the British Atlantic colonial world. Britain had additional commitments in Florida, as well as military outposts, trading posts and other dependencies in Ireland, the Mediterranean, India, Africa, Central America, the Bahamas, the Bermudas, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Hudson's Bay. Britain was intensely engaged in diplomacy and threatening entanglements with France, Spain and other European powers. Britain was an economic power, not a military titan.

King George and the British government did not have unlimited military resources. Army and naval forces were allocated to the rebellious American colonies, just as they were to the West Indies and other areas of vital interest. French and Spanish forces continually threatened the British Caribbean islands, an economic bastion of the British monarchy. There were not enough British ships and troops to establish compelling military superiority in every arena of British interest.

British admirals could not prevent a localized French naval superiority in the Chesapeake Bay that forced Cornwallis to surrender his under-sized army to Washington and Rochambeau at Yorktown in October, 1781.

Did the British government send enough troops and ships to North America to get the job done when the rebellion broke out? Was winning the war a pre-eminent priority for King George and his ministers? Doubtless the British wanted to win. How hard did they try?

I'm not looking for a simple answer. I'm interested, first, in understanding the meaningful frames of reference for considering the question.


Bowler, R. Arthur.  Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in American, 1775-1783. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Corwin, Edward S. French Policy and the American Alliance of 1778. 1916. Reprint, Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1962.

Duffy, Michael. Soldiers, Sugar and Seapower: The British Expeditions to the West Indies and the War Against Revolutionary France. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Gipson, Lawrence Henry. The Triumphant Empire: The Empire Beyond the Storm, 1770-1776, vol. 13 of The British Empire Before The American Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1967.

O'Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Seton-Watson, Robert William. Britain In Europe: 1789-1914, A Survey of Foreign Policy. 1937. Reprint, Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1955.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

“Mr. Jeppers, send a telegram to San Francisco.”

“Mr. Jeppers, send a telegram to San Francisco.”

Before October 1861, it would have been possible for a banker in Salt Lake City to say that, but anybody farther east would have been out of luck.

Just before the start of the Civil War,  telegraph lines connected the East Coast to as far west as western Missouri, and the West Coast could send messages by wire as far east as Salt Lake City. The central plains, essentially what is now Kansas and Colorado, had no poles (no trees!) and no wire.
Congress in 1860 offered a bounty of $40,000 a year to the first company that could connect the East Coast and West Coast telegraph networks. Wire, glass insulators and poles would have to be shipped by horse-drawn wagon from San Francisco to the construction zone.

The Western Union Telegraph Co. took up the challenge and completed the line to create a coast-to-coast communications channel which we have largely taken for granted for the last 154 years. The transcontinental railroad wouldn’t be complete until 1869.

Imagine the reality of 1860. Imagine that your text message to your sweetie on the other side of the country had to be copied out and carried by stagecoach or a horseman through Kansas and Colorado, weather permitting.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The first “Indian” treaty

White Europeans signed the first peace treaty with Native Americans more than 394 years ago, less than six months after the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth harbor.

It was honored for more than 50 years.

The rest, sadly, is American history.

The good ship Mayflower arrived in Cape Cod Bay in November 1620, carrying 101 English settlers. Most of them were Puritan Separatists who had left the Church of England behind when they embarked for North America. (They intended to land at the mouth of the Hudson River in what is now New York, but ocean storms blew them off course).

A few months later Captain Myles Standish and his men made first contact with some of the estimated 5,000 Wampanoag people who inhabited the region. A short time later, their leader, Massasoit, visited the English settlement.

On April 1, 1621, the Pilgrims made a defensive alliance with Massasoit, signing an agreement that neither group would “doe hurt” to the other. This first treaty had a remarkable enforcement provision: if a Wampanoag violated its terms, he would be sent to Plymouth for judgment and punishment by the colonists; if a European broke the law, his case would be handled by the Wampanoags.

I couldn’t readily find any details on any breaches of the treaty and how enforcement was handled in fact.

We can take note that such even-handed, cross-cultural enforcement of treaty provisions was not the norm, and, in fact, our colonial history is filled with examples of treaties that were honored in the breach but not otherwise.

Massasoit and his sachems didn’t know what they were getting into.

Less than 60 years later, disease and warfare had killed most of the Wampanoags.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Women have the right to vote

As you know, it wasn’t always true in the United States that women were “permitted” to vote.

In 1889, legislators in the Wyoming territory approved a constitution establishing the right of women to vote. Wyoming became the national pioneer in legalizing women’s suffrage in 1890 when it was admitted to the union as the 44th state. (As territories, Wyoming and a couple others allowed women to vote as early as 1869).

The Isle of Man in the Irish Sea gave women who owned property the right to vote in 1881. In 1893 New Zealand became the first country to establish national women’s suffrage.

In America, women were unable to vote in most eastern states until August 18, 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.

So, when you’re thinking about U. S. history, keep in mind that men get all the credit—and all the blame—for the actions of the colonies and the national government for the first four hundred years or so.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

First robbery of a moving train

The Reno Brothers gang

Trains started running in the United States in the 1830s, but it wasn’t until October 6, 1866, that some bad guys named John and Simeon Reno stopped a moving train in Jackson County, Indiana, and grabbed $13,000 before making their getaway. notes that parked trains in depots or rail yards had been robbed before the Reno brothers started “the great train robbery” escapades. Grabbing the cash boxes from trains in the middle of nowhere in the American West was profitable for a while, and the robbers piled up a lot of loot.

The railroad companies reacted and put armed guards (and sometimes saddled horses in special box cars) on the trains to squelch the Reno brothers and Jesse James and Butch Cassidy and their ilk. The thrill of shooting up a moving train pretty much wore off after a few decades.

The last attempt to rob a train was carried out on November 24, 1937, by Henry Loftus and Harry Donaldson, who bungled their plan to rob passengers on the Southern Pacific Railroad’s Apache Limited out of El Paso, TX. The youthful desperadoes pulled six-shooters and grabbed some passengers’ watches, and then about 20 passengers attacked them, “punching and kicking them in a frenzy,” and finally tying them in two seats.

No one has made a movie about that robbery yet.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Ford’s assembly line, 1913 style

Henry Ford didn’t invent the assembly line—it had been used for decades in the meatpacking industry and elsewhere before he made it famous.

Ford did create a first when he converted his entire Model T Ford manufacturing process to the moving, mechanized assembly line in October 1913. Actual production time for a single car was cut from 12.5 hours to six hours in short order, and ultimately was reduced to 93 minutes. Ford’s men working on a single line could build 15 cars every day. More than 15 million were built between 1908 and 1927.

Roughly, the introduction of the assembly line boosted production efficiency by a little more than 700 percent.

Henry Ford got a lot of press (good and bad) in 1914 when he started paying his assembly workers $5 a day, about twice the going rate. He gets a lot of good press now for this “enlightened” move. (p.s. he didn’t do it because he was a nice guy, he did it to reduce staff turnover).

Of course, Ford never passed on most of the cost savings from that huge jump in productivity. I wonder if he ever dreamed for a moment about bumping his workers’ pay to $20 a day?

Another point of interest: one could argue that the advent of the assembly line finally did away with any remaining vestige of handmade craftsmanship that went into the construction of the Model T.

I wonder if the Model Ts that rolled off the line in 1927 were made to the same quality standards that were evident in the 1908 models?

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.